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Conversion committee faces deadline with lack of consensus

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NEW YORK, Aug. 12 (JTA) — The committee charged with staving off a crisis over conversions in Israel faces a deadline this week as media leaks cloud its conclusions and consensus appears elusive. The committee, headed by Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman, was formed by the government to forge a path acceptable to the three major Jewish streams to avert the passage of controversial pending legislation. That legislation would codify the Orthodox monopoly over conversions performed in Israel. Friday is the slated deadline for the committee’s recommendations, to be followed by the government coalition’s approval by Sept. 5. Members largely have kept the deliberations to themselves according to an agreement by all involved. But a recent unconfirmed report by the daily Ha’aretz said the discussions included a proposal by Ne’eman for the establishment of a “joint conversion school for all streams of Judaism.” The conversion itself would be performed in an Orthodox rabbinical court according to halacha, or strict Jewish law. Such a proposal, the newspaper said, could be applied to other rituals, including marriage. At the same time, the report continued, the Reform and Conservative synagogues would for the first time receive government funding “similar to those of Orthodox synagogues.” The proposal presupposes that the Conservative and Reform movements would give up their demand for equality in matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce and conversion. But that is by no means a safe presupposition, given the movements’ goal of, for one, “registration of Reform and Conservative converts on an equal basis with Orthodox converts,” according to a document issued by the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations in June. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC, refused to discuss the substance of the leaked proposals, saying only that parts of the leak were accurate and parts inaccurate. But asserting that there is currently “no consensus” on the proposals, Yoffie said, “I’m not overly optimistic about the ability of the committee to reach a resolution on the conversion bill.” In Jerusalem, Rabbi Uri Regev, director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center and a member of the commission, declined to comment on the reported proposal, saying, “I really prefer to leave it to discussion in committee” rather than talk about it in a way “that may jeopardize the process.” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also declined to comment on the substance of the Ha’aretz report. “Whoever leaked it was irresponsible,” said Epstein, who was part of a four-member North American committee that triggered the formation of the Israeli commission and is in daily contact with it. Epstein said he also hoped that the commission’s participants would take a look at the “bigger picture” and not be slowed in their efforts by recent external developments. He was referring to the authorities’ forcible removal of Conservative Jews gathered to pray at the Western Wall plaza for Tisha B’Av and a recent High Court decision upholding the appointment of a Reform woman to the religious council in Netanya. The move angered some fervently Orthodox leaders. Meanwhile, Conservative leaders in Israel vowed to continue their struggle to hold egalitarian prayers at the Western Wall and accused the police of using unnecessary force when they removed them on Tisha B’Av. “Instead of dealing with the attackers, the police turned the victims into double victims, both of haredi Orthodox aggression and of police violence,” Conservative Rabbi Ehud Bandel told Israel Army Radio. Conservative activists were also considering whether to pursue legal action against one policeman they said had punched a woman in the face. However, Jerusalem Police Chief Yair Yitzhaki defended the actions, saying they were preventing a possible confrontation. “There were thousands of worshipers present, and it looked as though their feelings were offended,” he said, referring to the haredim. Yitzhaki said the Conservative group had been informed that it could pray in the upper plaza, but in “in accordance with the custom of the place,” a reference to a separation of men and women. Einat Ramon, spokeswoman for the Conservative movement in Israel, said, however, that her group would petition the High Court of Justice to clarify whether egalitarian prayer was allowed in the Western Wall plaza. Ramon said their legal adviser had been told by police that the group could conduct mixed prayers. (JTA correspondent Naomi Segal and Michael Arnold in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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